Al-Ahram Weekly On-line   Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
7 -13 December 2000
Issue No.511
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

AUC face-off

By Soha Abdelaty

Two months ago, on the first day she wore the niqab (a full veil that covers the face), Heba El-Shabrawi entered the gates of the American University in Cairo (AUC) and attempted to pass through security. The guards refused to let the economics sophomore on campus because they could not confirm her identity. After El-Shabrawi adamantly refused to lift the niqab from her face for a positive identification, the head of security agreed to allow her through the gates -- for the time being. That was only the beginning.

The scenario is not uncommon; it takes place sporadically at various universities in Egypt when a female student feels it is her duty as a Muslim to cover her face, and then defends her right to dress as she wishes. University officials, however, feel that they have the right to dictate how students should dress on campus, and have the authority to prevent students from entering the university or attending classes if they fail to comply with the university's dress code.

Since the first confrontation, the AUC management has allowed El-Shabrawi to continue attending classes until they reach a final decision on the matter. However, in practice her access to university grounds depended on which security guard was on duty. Last week, the AUC administration informed El-Shabrawi of their final decision: either she takes off the niqab or feel "free to attend another university," said an official AUC statement, a copy of which was given to El-Shabrawi.

"Our demands are not extreme. We are not asking her to go against her religious duties as this [wearing the niqab] is not one of them," explained Mohamed Farouk El-Hittami, AUC vice president for student affairs.

"How can they teach us public freedoms, and then restrict my personal freedom to dress as I wish?" El-Shabrawi told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Even if it is not dictated by religion, the issue is still one of personal freedom."

El-Shabrawi is determined to stand her ground and it is yet unclear which course the dispute will take.

According to El-Hittami, AUC did not have an official policy on niqab prior to this incident, but after consulting with legal advisers, administrators learned that a 1994 regulation laid down by the Ministry of Education prohibited students wearing the niqab from attending university classes for security reasons. The AUC administration decided that this attire should not be acceptable because allowing students to wear the niqab was a grave security risk since the identity of the student was hidden.

Moreover, El-Hittami says, the niqab and the environment with which it is associated go against the type of education which the AUC offers and the kind of climate that it attempts to create.

"We cannot claim to give students a liberal education and then encourage such forms of religious extremism. Somehow, we [would] not be conveying the correct message," he stressed.

The AUC administrator noted that the university prohibited extremism in all its forms. Students were expected to dress decently and recognise that they were living in an oriental and conservative culture.

El-Shabrawi, however, is unwavering: other students at the AUC are free to dress as they wish, and are not restricted in any way by the institution's management. "I did not see students who might not be decently dressed being prevented by security guards," she noted. "Who decides what's decent anyway?"

El-Shabrawi said that she had not faced any opposition from her colleagues, and her professors had shown no antipathy or discomfort, since she agrees to uncover her face before sitting for exams. Meanwhile, some students have started a campaign to protest against AUC's decision and are collecting signatures on a petition which will be presented to AUC president Richard Gerhart.

The controversy that is raging on campus and on the pages of the university newspaper, Caravan, may prompt other female students to follow suit. "Many girls want to wear the niqab, but fear university regulations," El-Shabrawi said. "They told me that I encouraged them to take such a step, which makes me more adamant."

Related stories:
Veiled resentment 26 Oct. - 1 Nov. 2000

Related links:
The American University in Cairo

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